Telemann’s Die Tageszeiten (The Times of Day) is among the fruits of a remarkable period of artistic rejuvenation during the composer’s old age. Following his return in 1738 from a triumphant eight-month visit to Paris, the disappointing closing of the Hamburg Opera in the same year, and the voluntary dismantling of his unprecedented self-publishing business in 1740, Telemann scaled down his musical activities. The sixty-year-old composer now quietly fulfilled his official duties as City Music Director at Hamburg while taking up gardening, for which hobby he requested rare plants from far-flung friends such as George Frideric Handel in London. For someone who had displayed almost inexhaustible energy over a four-decade career, this qualified as semi-retirement. But upon entering his mid-seventies, Telemann embarked on a series of large-scale cantatas and oratorios to texts by the youngest generation of German poets, men who could easily have been his grandsons. The poetry of Christian Wilhelm Alers (1737-1806), Johann Andreas Cramer (1723-88), Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803), Carl Wilhelm Ramler (1725-98), and Justus Friedrich Wilhelm Zachariae (1726-77) lit a fire beneath the “alte Noten-Held” (old musical hero), as one young musician referred to him at the time.
Zachariae’s Die Tageszeiten, a series of four lengthy poems published in 1756, strongly reflect the influence of English pastoral poetry. His reverence for Telemann’s music is clear from a passage in “Der Abend” (Evening), where he singles out the composer for special praise: “Telemann, no one but you, you father of holy composition, whose splendid song is admired by the Gauls themselves, is able to delight the chorus of angels with earthly tones.” It must have been in 1756 or 1757 that Zachariae provided Telemann with the pastoral-sacred librettos for four cantatas (inspired by, but distinct from, the poems), each of which includes two arias and a central recitative. The musical settings also include concluding choruses, but because these texts do not appear in the libretto as published in Zachariae’s Poetische Schriften (1764), we may suppose that Telemann authored them himself. The cantatas were first performed on October 20, 1757 at a public concert of the composer’s music in Hamburg’s Drillhaus, the exercise facility for the city’s civic guard that doubled as a concert hall.
Telemann scores the cantatas for solo voice and an orchestra of flutes, bassoon, trumpet, and strings. As the Sun traverses the sky, the vocal timbres gradually darken: soprano for morning, alto for noon, tenor for evening, and bass for night. The journey begins with a musical sunrise at the beginning of the sinfonia, where an unharmonized, middle-register “horizon pitch” leads to increasing rhythmic activity in the upper strings and a corresponding registral ascent. This move from darkness to light plays out again in the following two movements, the first featuring a halting, low-lying melody over a plodding accompaniment, and the second an energetic, higher-lying melody with a more vigorous accompaniment.
The sinfonia’s musical chiaroscuro prepares us for the natural and spiritual journey from darkness to illumination in the first cantata, Der Morgen. In fact, each of the “sunrise” figures (rising arpeggios, trills, rapid triplets, and fanfare-like rhythms) reappear in the first aria and recitative to illustrate rejoicing, sparkling jewels, pomp, the golden hours’ dance, and brilliant war trumpets. The trumpet adorns the first aria to suggest the Sun as heavenly king presenting itself to the people. This celebratory mood continues during much of the recitative but finally gives way to more serious songs of praise to God as creator of Sun and Earth. The second aria (marked Ernsthaft; Serious) reverses this rhetorical shift, with the minor-mode first half invoking the almighty’s greatness in both radiance and darkness before a momentary turn to major mode for nature’s exultation in God. The concluding chorus is a joyful peroration, once again welcoming morning while invoking nature.
In the first aria of Der Mittag, the intense midday Sun provides a cornucopia of natural riches, while the west winds offer relief from the heat. Telemann’s expression marking of Mässig (Moderately) reflects the “middle” style of the music – an ingratiating, song-like idiom that is neither particularly elevated nor overly earthy. Relief from the midday Sun is also provided by the forest, as we learn in the following recitative, where the orchestra breathes musical life into the murmuring brook, blowing wind, humming bees, and echoing shepherd’s horn. The recitative concludes with a message of Enlightenment morality: resist the excessive pride, greed, and phoniness common among urbanites and instead seek solace in the countryside. In the second aria, the breezes of the first two movements now cool religious ecstasy (a metaphor for the blazing Sun) as kings and shepherds unite to honor the Lord of creation. Telemann writes a lovely hymn-like tune for the alto, who is delicately accompanied in the aria’s A section by an obbligato viola da gamba and pizzicato strings. The fiery Sun itself is the object of rejoicing hymns in the final chorus.
To this point, Telemann has largely resisted the temptation to balance the pastoral nature of the libretto with conventional emblems of musical rusticity. But in the first aria of Der Abend, he adds a pair of flutes to the string ensemble; the shepherds of Der Mittag now take up their pipes for the first time since morning. Evening’s descent inspires cascading melodic lines, just as the rising Sun inspired upward movements earlier in the cycle. But the sun is not the only thing falling: back in the forest for the recitative, downward trickling water and the lulling west wind causes us to fall asleep and dream. Our eyelids become heavy in the second aria (marked Schlaftrunken; Drowsily, literally “drunk with sleep”), and we have trouble maintaining our equilibrium as the music begins off-tonic with cadential chords that sound more like an ending than a beginning. The halting melody of the tenor suggests that he, too, is gradually nodding off to a pious slumber. As the Sun sets and the day concludes, the fugal chorus offers another song of praise to the creator.
The shadows that have populated each of the preceding cantatas finally envelop us in the first aria of Die Nacht. Telemann evokes darkness both tonally (minor mode) and timbrally (bassoon doubling the vocal bass), while the quiet of a sleeping world and reverence for the creator is embodied by a bare melody and a stark, repeated-note accompaniment that suggests the quiet ticking of a hall clock or the gentle chirping of crickets magnified by night’s stillness. We learn in the recitative that night also brings feelings of loneliness and thoughts of death. Yet tolling funeral bells soon give way to radiating consolation (a fluttering motive portraying the angels’ flapping wings). Next a brief arioso on “dass er unsterblich ist” (that he is immortal) strongly recalls the melody to “fall ich hin in den Staub” (I fall down in the dust) in the first aria. This subtle musical link underscores the theological message of salvation through faith; that by kneeling in the dust before the creator, one’s soul achieves immortality even as the body itself turns to dust. Darkness and thoughts of mortality are banished in the heroic-sounding second aria (marked Aufgeweckt; Alert, literally “awakened”), where the eternal morning of salvation promises the aroused soul a blissful state. To conclude this most spiritual of the four cantatas, Telemann begins the chorus in hymn style, shifting to a rousing fugue when the subject moves from God to the earthly realm.